Friday, April 21, 2006

In which I fawn over Erin McKean

I think I should just get it over with and start an Erin McKean fan club. I'd be assured many members, and we could all wear cool glasses and retro dresses and sweater sets to show our respect.

I know why NPR called her America's Lexicographical Sweetheart.

Her session today, with Copy Editor's Wendy Nichols, was fantastic. McKean (who is editor in chief of American dictionaries for Oxford University Press) is just such a polished presenter; she had so many fun examples and clever anecdotes. To wit:
  • Someone tried to pay her $5 to take irregardless out of the dictionary. She said, first of all, I can't be bribed. Second of all, if I could, it wouldn't be for $5.
  • She talked about the "Usual Suspects" rule of dictionary reading: Don't leave before the twist at the end. You may be reading a clump of definitions that all have to do with the core meaning; it's at the end that the funky stuff shows up.
  • People are using ahem as a verb for online downloading: "I ahemmed the new Gnarls Barkley CD last night; it's so good!" It won't be in the dictionary any time soon, but finding new uses like that can be exciting -- even if you wouldn't allow it in a 1A story.
  • Online or print dictionaries? That depends on what you want. McKean compared the online search to a commando raid: You get parachuted in, you take out your target, and they lift you back out. But looking up a word in a book is like an over-land invasion: You're on a trek through all this land, picking up skills and intelligence as you go. One destination may just lead you to another.
And, back to asshat, it won't be enough for just us bloggers to use the word. When you find it in teen movies and zines, that won't get it in the dictionaries, either. Now, if it's in the Economist without scare quotes, she said, then they might consider it.

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